It's not a pleasant thing to think about, but this week's portion shows how blood is an essential part of life and Judaism.
This week we read about blood: blood of birth, blood of menstruation, blood that purifies those who are afflicted with tzara’at. We often avoid speaking about blood. Yet every year, we read these portions, Tazria and Metzora, after Passover. During the seder, we are awash in this essential liquid of life. The first plague turns the waters of the Nile to blood, blood on the doorposts protects our ancestors from death; we remember but do not see the cessation of the lifeblood of the Egyptian firstborns or our Egyptian pursuers, who perish in a watery grave.
At my home, we place a beet, a symbol of blood, on our seder plate. It sits in the space marked zaroah, the place where many put a roasted bone. God’s zaroah, God’s outstretched arm, brought us out of Egypt. The mark of the zaroah, the bloody bone, the bleeding beet, saved our ancestors’ lives. How does our blood save lives?
These paired portions continue the Levitical concern for establishing and maintaining a sacred community with appropriate boundaries. Tazria addresses the post-partum woman’s eligibiliy for inclusion in the community, and Metzora turns attention to purification rituals for both healthy and irregular discharge of blood.
Both portions challenge the modern reader with details, distinctions and practices that may seem arcane and confounding. However, we share the primary concern of these chapters — blood, a source of life with healing properties, can also be a source of fear and terror.
As blood runs through these portions, blood runs through our bodies. And there is no substitute for human blood when we are in need. This winter, in large part because of the weather, there was a blood shortage in the United States and Canada. Seven out of 10 patients admitted to American hospitals need blood — one person every three seconds needs a blood transfusion. Twenty percent of recipients are children, and many are cancer patients. One pint of blood from one donor can save up to three lives. If only 1 more percent of all Americans gave blood, blood shortages in this country would disappear in the near future.
Donating blood is simple and often takes less than one hour. After donating blood, our bodies replace the fluid in hours and the red blood cells within weeks. One cannot get AIDS or any other infectious disease by donating blood.
This is our time of counting the Omer. Every year, from the second night of Pesach to the eve of Shavuot, we join our ancestors and number the days between our descent from Egypt and our ascent to Sinai, from liberation to revelation. What better time to offer a gift of life?
Each of us has the opportunity to donate blood to another, who, like each of us, is walking on freedom’s path, hoping to reach the safety of health, of home. Donate blood. Our rabbis teach that one who saves a life saves a world. As we count these days, each of us can take a part in saving a life — and saving a world.
To learn more about donating blood, log on to: pennmedicine.org/give-blood/ or redcrossblood.org/locations/musser-donor-center.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is co-editor of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives, a 2014 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.